The War at Sea 1939-40

The war at sea in 1939-1940 was in many ways more productive for the allies than was the case on land. Please do take the time to read this page, however to view our exhibits please, click here.

While the early months of the land war on the Western Front were largely uneventful, the so called "Phoney War" period, the war at sea was an altogether different matter. The Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine were active from the first day of the war and the actions and vessel losses were so frequent and wide-ranging, that for the purposes of this exhibition, we have resorted to recording only the major events in a chronological format. Where events are marked * there is a more detailed account or exhibit(s) elsewhere in the museum. At the end of each month is a tally of Allied shipping losses due to German submarine action and the losses of German U-boats. These early months of the war also marked the opening phases of the Battle of the Atlantic and the attempts of the German U-boat arm to cut Britain off from vital supplies of raw materials and food.

September 1939

3rd - 1930 hours: German submarine U-30 torpedoes and sinks the passenger liner Athenia, 250 miles NW of Ireland. 112 passengers and crew are lost. Germany denies responsibility and the Kriegsmarine is engaged in a major cover-up.

4th - British Admiralty orders convoys be organized for all merchant ships, with naval escorts.

8th – The British Government declares a blockade of Germany.

The RAF despatches ten bombers to attack the German pocket battleship Admiral von Scheer , at anchor off Wilhelmshaven. The three bombs that hit do not explode. Five Blenheim aircraft are lost. A further raid by nine Wellington bombers is equally unsuccessful, with two aircraft lost.

14th - Off north-west Ireland, German submarine U-39 attacks British carrier Ark Royal, but its torpedoes miss. Escorting destroyers use depth charges to force U-39 to the surface and the crew of 44 men is taken prisoner. This was the first German submarine to be lost in the war.

16th - The first transatlantic Allied convoy of the war, HX-1, sails from Halifax, Canada.

17th – While on an anti-submarine patrol off the coast of Ireland, the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous is torpedoed and sunk by German submarine U-29, with the loss of 519 men.

20th – U-27 is sunk by depth charges from the destroyers HMS Fortune and HMS Forester. The crew of 38 men is captured.

 29th - Captain Hans Langsdorff of the pocket-battleship Admiral Graf Spee receives orders to attack Allied merchant shipping. The following day Graf Spee sinks SS Clement off the coast of Brazil.

September – The Allies lose 50 ships totalling 201,000 tons. The Germans lose two U-boats.

October 1939

5th - German pocket-battleship Admiral Graf Spee sinks the Newton Beach east of Ascension Island and two days later, the Ashlea in the same area. On the 10th she sinks Huntsman while en route to the Cape.

14th - In Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, German submarine U-47 torpedoes the British battleship HMS Royal Oak. The ship sinks in about 20 minutes and 833 men are killed. *

22nd - German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee sinks Trevanion while en route to the Cape.

October - The Allies lose 34 ships totalling 185,000 tons. The Germans lose five U-boats.

November 1939

15th - Admiral Graf Spee sinks Africa Shell in the Mozambique Channel.

22nd – In addition to the threat from U-boats, the Allies were losing ships at an alarming rate through German sea-mines and in particular, the new magnetic mine. Fortunately, on this day a German magnetic mine landed in mud flats in the Thames Estuary. It was recovered, stripped, and evaluated by a team from HMS Vernon, revealing the secret of its magnetic polarity. With this knowledge, degaussing systems were installed on most Allied ships to render this type of mine ineffective. In terms of conventional contact mines, those laid by U19 (pictured below) alone had accounted for four merchantmen off the east coast of England during October and November. *

23rd – While on patrol, British armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi sights the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau between the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Completely outgunned, Captain Kennedy, commanding Rawalpindi, decides to fight rather than surrender his vessel. Despite registering hits on the Scharnhorst, after a 40-minute battle, the battered hulk of the Rawalpindi is sunk with the loss of her captain and 237 of her crew. There are only 48 survivors.

November - The Allies lose 29 ships totalling 77,799 tons. The Germans lose one U-boat.

December 1939

2nd - German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee sinks Doric Star south-east of St. Helena and the following day, sinks Taiora in the same area.

7th - Admiral Graf Spee sinks the Streonhaln.

12th - The destroyer HMS Duchess sinks after a collision with the battleship HMS Barham off the coast of Scotland, with the loss of 124 men.

13th - Admiral Graf Spee is intercepted off the coast of South America by the British cruisers Exeter and Ajax, and the New Zealand cruiser Achilles. The Battle of the River Plate has begun. Despite inflicting serious damage to Exeter and moderate damage to the Ajax and Achilles, the Admiral Graf Spee is also hit and suffers critical damage to her fuel system and is running low on ammunition for her main guns. She is forced to seek refuge in the neutral harbour of Montevideo, Uruguay, to undertake repairs and await further orders from Berlin. *

17th – Following orders from Berlin, Captain Langsdorff of the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee scuttles his vessel in the mouth of the River Plate, to avoid its capture. SS Tacoma and two other vessels take the crew to Buenos Aires, Argentina. *

18th – The RAF despatches 22 Wellington bombers to attack warships in the area of Heligoland Bight. German air defences are alerted and 12 of the attackers are shot down, forcing the RAF to suspend indefinitely daylight bombing over Germany.

19th – The Argentine government issues a decree saying Germans from the Graf Spee are to be interned in Buenos Aires. The next day, Captain Langsdorff of the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee kills himself. *

December - The Allies lose 43 ships totalling 108,347 tons. The Germans lose one U-boat.

January 1940

21st – U-22 sinks British destroyer HMS Exmouth in the Moray Firth, Scotland and its crew of 135 is lost.

January - The Allies lose 56 ships totalling 173,996 tons. The Germans lose two U-boats.

February 1940

15th Hitler orders unrestricted submarine warfare.

16th – Ignoring Norwegian neutrality, the British destroyer HMS Cossack enters Jössing Fjord and a boarding party storms the German supply ship Altmark. The Altmark had been the supply ship for the Admiral Graf Spee and she is carrying the crews of the merchant ships which had been sunk by her. The boarding party kill seven German sailors and free around 300 prisoners. The Norwegian government is incensed.

March 1940

2nd A German He-111 aircraft attacks the British cargo liner Domala en route from Antwerp to London. She is set on fire and passengers attempting to evacuate the vessel in lifeboats are machine-gunned. Out of 291 on board, 108 are killed.

11th - An RAF Blenheim bomber from 82 Squadron sinks U-31 in the area of Jade Bight. The crew of 58 is killed.

March - The Allies lose 26 ships totalling 73,071 tons. The Germans lose three U-boats.

April 1940

7th - Air reconnaissance reports significant naval activity in north German ports. The British Naval Attaché in Denmark cables the British Admiralty that German warships have been sighted sailing towards Norway.

8th - The British government informs Norway that they intend to mine the coastal waters off Norway. Operation Wilfred begins the same day. *

British destroyer HMS Glowworm attacks German destroyers off Norway, but encounters the German heavy cruiser Hipper. Despite being out-gunned and badly damaged, Glowworm first attempts to torpedo and then rams the Hipper but loses her bow in the process. Her boilers explode and only 31 out of her crew of 149 survive. The commander of Glowworm, Lieutenant-Commander Roope, is posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

9th - German forces land at six key locations in Norway. The German government claims the invasion is made to forestall a British invasion. Norwegian coastal gun batteries and torpedoes sink German heavy cruiser Blücher near Oslo; the light cruiser Karlsruhe is damaged by a British submarine and eventually scuttled. *

The British battle cruiser Renown engages the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau off Narvik, damaging the latter.


10th – First Battle of Narvik. A British destroyer flotilla is ordered to attack German forces in Narvik. British destroyers Hardy, Havock, and Hunter attack, achieving complete surprise. They sink destroyers Anton Schmidt and Wilhelm Heidkamp, and destroy six supply ships. However, as they withdraw, they are attacked by five German destroyers losing the Hardy and the Hunter. Havock escapes with two other destroyers from the flotilla, Hotspur and Hostile, which are both damaged. *

Blackburn Skua aircraft of 800 and 803 squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm, flying from the Orkney Islands, attack and sink the German cruiser Köningsberg at Bergen, Norway.

13th – Second Battle of Narvik. British battleship Warspite and nine destroyers attack German destroyers trapped in the Narvik fjord and which are low on fuel and ammunition. Eight German destroyers are sunk or scuttled, together with U-64 which is sunk by the spotter plane from Warspite. *

14th – 18th British troops land in Norway near Trondheim, Narvik, Namsos and Adalsnes.

26th - The British government decides to evacuate central Norway.

April - The Allies lose 10 ships totalling 35,432 tons. The Germans lose four U-boats.

May 1940

3rd - The Allied Expeditionary Force in Norway completes its withdrawal from Namsos and Andalsnes. The French destroyer Bison and the British destroyer Afridi are bombed and sunk in the North Sea, while escorting troop convoys from Norway to England.

13th - At Bjerkvik, Norway, seven miles north of Narvik, three battalions of French alpine troops and a Norwegian battalion land, capturing the town, and prepare for an assault on Narvik. *

26th - Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk commences.

28th - French, Polish and Norwegian troops re-take Narvik, but the decision has already been made a few days before to evacuate all Allied forces from Norway.

31st - The Royal Navy loses the destroyers HMS Wakeful, HMS Grafton and HMS Grenade to enemy action off Dunkirk. HMS Gallant is badly damaged by a mine with the loss of 55 crew. *

May - The Allies lose 16 ships totalling 63,476 tons. The Germans lose one U-boat.

June 1940

1st - German aircraft bomb and sink British destroyers Basilisk, Keith, and Havant off Dunkirk. *

4th – In the early morning, the departure of the British destroyer Shikari from Dunkirk brings to an end Operation Dynamo. 338,446 Allied troops have been evacuated, but around 40,000 are left behind. *

8th - Off northern Norway, the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sink the British aircraft carrier Glorious and destroyers Acasta and Ardent. *

10th - Fifteen Blackburn Skua planes from British carrier Ark Royal attack German ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at anchor in Trondheim Fjord, Norway. Only one bomb hits, but it fails to explode. Eight aircraft fail to return.

17th - The White Star Line passenger liner Lancastria is sunk by a German JU 88 while evacuating troops and RAF personnel off Saint Nazaire, France. The ship sinks in 20 minutes with massive loss of life. Official figures put the number lost at 1,738, but almost certainly it was many more, with estimates ranging between 2,500 – 6,000. *

June - The Allies lose 62 ships totalling 335,319 tons. The Germans lose one U-boat.

July 1940

2nd - Passenger liner Arandora Star is torpedoed by U-47 off the coast of Ireland, carrying 1,500 German and Italian aliens from Great Britain to camps in Canada. Royal Canadian Navy destroyer St. Laurent rescues 857 survivors.

3rd - A British naval group arrives at Oran and Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria, requesting the surrender of the Vichy-French fleet. The French refuse, and the British ships open fire. Battleships Bretagne blows up, Dunkuerque is run aground, Provence is beached, and torpedo cruiser Magador explodes. 1,300 French sailors die. To read more about these events, click here.

16th - Adolf Hitler issues Directive No. 16 regarding preparations for an invasion of England – Operation Seelöwe (Sea Lion). The landing would be conducted on a wide front from Lyme Regis in the west to Ramsgate in the east. Preparations are to be completed by mid-August. First, the Royal Air Force must be reduced to pose no threat to a German crossing, mined channels must be cleared, the Straits of Dover are to be sealed off with minefields on both flanks, and the Royal Navy must be held down in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. *

19th – At the Battle of Cape Spada, Greece, several British ships sink Italian light cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni.

July - The Allies lose 41 ships totalling 203,709 tons. The Germans lose two U-boats.

August 1940

17th - Adolf Hitler declares a total blockade of the British Isles.

31st – The 20th Destroyer Flotilla operating out of Immingham, in attempting to intercept a convoy of German warships, runs into a newly-laid and uncharted German minefield off the Netherlands. Two destroyers, Esk and Ivanhoe, are lost and a further destroyer, Express, is badly damaged, with an estimated 400 casualties.

August - The Allies lose 57 ships totalling 287,311 tons. The Germans lose two U-boats.

September 1940

2nd - The US and Great Britain sign a deal in which the US will gain the lease of naval and air bases in Newfoundland, islands of Bermuda, Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad, Antigua, and British Guiana, in exchange for fifty aged naval destroyers.

German submarines in the Atlantic begin using "wolf pack" tactics to hunt shipping targets. Three submarines attack 53 ships in Convoy CS-2. Six ships are sunk.

17th - Adolf Hitler gives orders to postpone indefinitely Operation Seelöwe. The invasion fleet and troops are ordered dispersed from the area.

September - The Allies lose 57 ships totalling 285,152 tons. The Germans lose one U-boat.

October 1940

19th - Convoy SC-7 from Nova Scotia begins arriving in Great Britain. Of 34 original ships, 20 are sunk, and a further two damaged.

30th - British destroyers Harvester and Highlander sink German submarine U-32.

October - The Allies lose 72 ships totalling 342,204 tons. The Germans lose one U-boat.

November 1940

3rd – U-99 torpedoes and sinks the cargo ship Casanare and the armed merchant cruisers HMS Laurentic and HMS Patroclus, despite coming under destroyer and aircraft attack.

5th - German pocket battleship Admiral von Scheer attacks Atlantic convoy HX-84, sinking British armed merchant cruiser Jervis Bay. The ship defended the convoy for three hours, allowing all but five of the ships to escape. The Captain of the Jervis Bay, Edward Fegen is posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

6th - Royal Canadian Navy destroyer Ottawa and Royal Navy destroyer Harvester sink Italian submarine Faa di Bruno off Ireland. The submarine had been on its first mission.

11th - German surface raider Atlantis captures British merchant ship MV Automedon en route to Singapore. Top secret documents highlighting the deficiencies in Allied defensive preparations in the Far East are captured and passed to the Japanese.

British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious launches 21 Swordfish planes, attacking the Italian naval fleet at Taranto. Four major ships are sunk or put out of action. Two attacking aircraft are shot down.

November - The Allies lose 33 ships totalling 171,787 tons. The Germans lose two U-boats.

December 1940

1st - Italian submarine Argo torpedoes Royal Canadian Navy destroyer Saguenay, killing 21, but not sinking the ship. Saguenay had been escorting an eastbound convoy 300 miles west of Ireland.

23rd - German bombers sink the SS Breda in a convoy off the coast of Scotland. The ship is not directly hit, but nearby bomb blasts cause the ship to sink.

December - The Allies lose 41 ships totalling 234,707 tons. The Germans lose no U-boats.

U-37 (pictured below) was one of the most successful U-boats in the 1939-40 period, the so called "first happy time", sinking 50 ships totalling 194,545 tons.

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